As Hurricanes Irma and Maria ravaged Puerto Rico in September 2017, profound fear and anguish reverberated all the way to Greater Waterbury and the Litchfield Hills.
The roots that join the people of the island and Connecticut residents are deep, built on generations of Puerto Ricans migrating to work at the farms of Litchfield to the factories of Waterbury after World War II. Now, Connecticut has the highest percentage of Puerto Rican residents of any other state, and nearly one quarter of Waterbury’s population is Puerto Rican.
Over the years, Puerto Ricans have enriched our region with their skills, passions and talents in countless ways, and their spirit and culture invigorate many of our local neighborhoods.
So, after the hurricanes, when Puerto Rico’s electricity was completely knocked out, when over 400,000 people were left homeless, when running water was scarce and when hundreds of families relocated to Connecticut, people in Greater Waterbury and the Litchfield Hills mobilized.
Among the area residents who responded generously to the Foundation’s appeal for financial assistance to aid Puerto Ricans was Abby Wells of Woodbury.
Wells, founder of the Abby N. Wells Fund at Connecticut Community Foundation, was appalled by the plight of Puerto Ricans and the slowness of the government response to the hurricanes. She said she was compelled to act by the incredible need.
“It’s outrageous that all these people had to be relocated,” said Wells. “It’s unconscionable. How could you not project yourself into a situation like that? To think of Puerto Rican people living without electricity…you can’t pump gas to fill a car, you can’t get water from a well…All the things we take for granted…”
A first wave of contributions from Connecticut Community Foundation donors, $8,000, was sent to the Puerto Rican Community Foundation so they could respond quickly with aid for the island’s immediate needs: “sources of life,” including water, food, housing and medicine.
And through the work of Foundation grantees Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, New Opportunities, and the Hispanic Coalition of Greater Waterbury, an additional $18,000 from the Foundation will support Puerto Rican families who have relocated to Greater Waterbury and who are in serious danger of becoming homeless.
The grant dollars will also help Puerto Ricans acquire important documents lost in the hurricanes—such as replacement drivers’ licenses and social security cards—which are needed to seek employment, housing or benefits here in Connecticut. And, more grant dollars will provide transportation for families who have relocated to Waterbury as they seek vital services and benefits.
Many other community partners are teaming up to support relocated people—including 300 students from Puerto Rico who are newly enrolled in Waterbury schools—and the Foundation’s staff is lending their deep knowledge of community services and resources to the effort.
The road ahead for Puerto Ricans is a long one, but paved with the generosity and compassion of people in Greater Waterbury and the Litchfield Hills.
Photo: Connecticut family members look on as a Puerto Rican government representative gives a brief on the relief effort on the island. Photo by Ryan Caron King, Connecticut Public Radio